Paul Verhoeven directs the wild and woolly RoboCop, a satirical piece of science fiction that explores a world saturated in violence, corruption and crime. The 1987 picture uses grisly violence and black comedy as rocket fuel, but its deeper themes of identity, memory and authority give it more layers than may be initially apparent.
RoboCop is almost gleefully anarchic, much like the scene in which a group of thugs take a rocket launcher to a city street and giggle maniacally at the destruction. Verhoeven’s movie requires its exaggerated streak to point to what’s happening in this not-too-unrealistic future, while its absurd tone suggests a deliriously ludicrous bent to the mega-corporate-ruled Detroit.
In the Michigan city in the near future, crime is rampant thanks to financial disaster. Despite it all, mega-corporations like Omni Consumer Products are still doing brisk business in the chaos; OCP wants to bowl over “Old Detroit” and replace it with the Delta City utopia. This requires them to address the crime problem, which puts several projects in motion.
When one of these projects goes hilariously but darkly awry, an opportunistic executive (Miguel Ferrer) seizes on his chance and introduces the RoboCop project to the big guns at OCP. This project requires a test subject, so it’s a good thing for them that Murphy (Peter Weller) has just been gunned down by gangsters. But when Murphy’s memories begin to rise in the crime-fighting machine, complications arise for OCP and their planned utopia.
RoboCop comprehends the steely entombment of Murphy’s humanness necessary for the creation of its protagonist, but Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier target what that humanity means through the revelation of memories and the piecing together of past events. Through this redeeming progression, Murphy comes into as much of “himself” as he can.
Because the nature of the story requires Murphy to be deconstructed, it isn’t necessary for his character to be overly intricate. All that is known about him from the outset is that he is the new kid on the block in a rough department. This is enough to forge empathy for the character. Verhoeven astutely and almost impartially shapes the minutiae of Murphy’s life from inside the helm of RoboCop.
Murphy’s former partner (Nancy Allen) serves as the audience’s most human of access points, while the crime boss Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) is the crazy villain. These two characters stand at opposite ends of the continuum, while RoboCop’s taciturn and detached approach to authority begins to evolve/erode the nearer he gets to his memories.
Another clever consideration in the world of RoboCop is the media. War is flourishing and an apparently “peaceful” Star Wars system in space keeps malfunctioning, even somehow killing two former US presidents in one day while starting a huge forest fire. These events are presented with concision and cheer by the news anchors, while advertisements merrily fill more airtime.
These more intimate layers of RoboCop are blasted wide open thanks to Verhoeven’s fiery use of violence. Several pivotal scenes resonate with gory elation, like the uproariously ironic sequence in which ED-209 “malfunctions” and blows the daylights out of an ill-starred junior executive or the later sequence when the same efficient crime-fighting machine tumbles down the stairs. Murphy’s expiration at the hands of the hooligans is equally explicit and silly.
RoboCop works because of this pile-up of the intimate and the broad. It’s a satisfying actioner and the viciousness is thrilling and terrific, but it’s also a tense and metaphysically meaningful yarn. Verhoeven, as with many of his films, sees no reason not to have it both ways. He pleasingly provokes and entertains, offering an idea of the future that still doesn’t seem that far off.